PHOENIX -- A quarter of students surveyed in the latest National College Health Assessment  reported that stress has hurt their academic performance, with such impacts as lower grades or dropped courses. That proportion has fluctuated in the vicinity of 30 percent for more than a decade.
The trend raised a red flag for faculty members at two institutions on opposite sides of the country, who were troubled by the harmful effects of stress and decided to dig deeper into its causes for and effects on different types of students. Presenting their research to educators here at the American College Health Association’s annual conference this month, they made the case for understanding "stressors" in order to boost student success.
“The important part that both institutions found is that it’s such an incredibly complex issue,” said Michael P. McNeil, director of health promotion at Columbia University. “I don’t think there’s ever going to be an answer. There’s going to be a series of things we do to address this.”
While the Columbia study  looked at students by academic unit, the University of San Diego researchers considered demographic factors such as being a first-generation student, race, employment, sexual orientation, and disabilities. Using open-ended focus groups, they asked students to identify their top three stressors and then sorted them by rank, frequency and severity between groups. So, for example, while students with disabilities were stressed by social issues most frequently, that form of stress was most severe for students of color. The same was true of time and non-school work stressors.
Many San Diego students suffer from retention issues related to socioeconomic status, said Margaret Baker, who began the project in 2007 while working there in health promotion but has since left the university. At the time of the survey, 63 percent of all students were white, and fewer than 2 percent were black.
The average San Diego student reports worse academic fallout from stress than the average college student, said Baker and her colleague Sandra Sgoutas-Emch, a psychology professor and director of San Diego’s Center for Educational Excellence, which fosters pedagogical development in faculty members. But they particularly want the university to take action on certain issues revealed in their findings: for example, black students are the most stressed out by disrespectful remarks and property damage; campus climate is the only stressor with significantly worse impact for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) students than heterosexual ones; and students who hold jobs report much higher levels of stress from their families, finances and time management.
Even though San Diego enrolls more Asian and Pacific Islander students than black students, the presenters didn’t make much mention of them because “Asian students weren’t showing any significant differences from Caucasian students on lots of variables,” Sgoutas-Emch said. The areas where they noticed a major difference was in family and campus climate stressors. She added that, “quite frankly,” the administration is most concerned about black students. (Asian and Pacific Islander students did report higher levels of stress than white students relating to finances, but lower levels than black students.)
At least one person in the audience took issue with this omission, and so did Neil Horikoshi, president & executive director of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, in an interview. He noted the “model minority” stereotype that often plagues Asian students . “We tend to be always excluded, which is one of the problems now because there’s very little tangible research in this area of the mental health issues, the stressors,” he said. But students who get scholarships through the fund say they struggle with a lack of institutional support – fewer than 1 percent of college presidents are Asian, Horikoshi said, and their representation down the administrative line isn’t a whole lot better – and often extreme pressures from their families and academe. “While there are professors who teach courses, there are no offices to really help students cope with true challenges…. They seek out each other, and that becomes their network of how they try to cope.”
Other aspects of the study have already spurred action. It prompted an audit of the financial aid office (to be conducted this summer), after the researchers collected comments like these – which echoed a common theme – and briefed different campus groups on their findings: “The financial aid system here is not built around being a minority…. When you actually ask them for help … it’s just terrible because it’s almost like [they] don’t want minorities to go here…. The answers they give you sometimes are so socially specific, like where people were told, ‘Oh, why don’t you put it on a credit card?’ How are you going to put $10,000 to $15,000 on a credit card?!”
But some aspects of college that disadvantage minority students are harder to address than others. Black students have long had to navigate hostile campus environments in which racism – and the isolation it breeds – influence their social and academic experience, said James T. Minor, senior program officer and director of higher education programs at the Southern Education Foundation . “It’s another expression of something that many student affairs professionals have dealt with for a long time in higher education,” Minor said. “It’s one thing to develop into an adult in an environment that is affirming, that is comfortable, so you can really focus in on the things you need to, rather than having to constantly combat racial aggression.” The latter was his own experience as a student at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where, he said, the climate negatively affected black students’ performance in the classroom.
Minor appreciates the effort to better understand how black students at San Diego are being affected by what many of them perceive as a hostile environment. But he said turning it into positive action can be more problematic. “I can’t demand that a student has an appreciation for diversity,” he said. “The difficulty has always been that you can’t legislate ideas, beliefs, behaviors or attitudes.” But campus officials can do things like reinforce certain behaviors, and give students space to learn and develop their own relationships and worldviews, so they’re more meaningful than a decree sent down from a dean’s office. “Changing the culture of an institution takes a lot of time and a lot of effort,” Minor said. “At the same time, they have to equip students of color, international students, as best they can to deal with and manage what they may experience on a predominantly white campus.”
The work at San Diego has brought about some changes, though. A new LGBTQ action committee is devising a strategic plan partly based on these data, in an effort to improve the campus climate for these students. And a subcommittee is examining ways to restructure tutoring services because of how stress is impacting students’ academics. “Everybody can do this,” Baker said. “You can, with the tools that are available for you, quite simply try to paint that picture [of student stress], so you can try to share this information with administrators and those who can make changes in your particular environment.”
McNeil, meanwhile, said that because Columbia students typically excel in the classroom, “the academic argument is rarely salient at my institution, so I don’t even go there.” Instead, he appeals to administrators by tying the effort to their institutional mission. By helping students identify and address their main stressors, he says, the university is fulfilling its mission  of advancing knowledge and learning – not to mention that it makes for more engaged students, who become more generous alumni.
On average, 75 percent of Columbia students reported having felt stressed in the last year; 34 percent of those students said it impacted their academic performance. Some of their top stressors surprised McNeil: they were “university administrative processes,” cluttered living environments (perhaps not so surprising), and the insufficient availability of healthy food options on campus.
Many themes, such as finances, academics and relationships, were identified across the board. But some were unique to individual academic units: for instance, future goals in the School of General Studies, and housing in the Teachers College. Graduate School of Business students seem to have the most trouble: themes unique to them include new social dynamics, a location adjustment, and “career.”
McNeil’s project hasn’t inspired any institutional changes, but because his goal was to reduce the negative impacts of student stress, he’s trying to spread the word about positive coping methods – and what better way to do that than by giving students free stuff? They can receive agendas with coping messages like “I spend time with friends” or “I listen to music” imprinted on the cover. The students chose the messages themselves. (One coping method that was conspicuously rare in students’ responses was counseling. All three researchers suspected that was because many students perceive a stigma to seeking help.)
The next step for McNeil is to figure out how to integrate stress relief into other efforts. “Rather than treat stress as a focused initiative,” he said, “we’re taking stress and drawing a connection to all the other work we do in health promotion.”
All three educators urged attendees at the session to take up a similar project.
“As you can see, stress is a popular topic. Students will be coming in throngs to your focus groups,” Baker said. “They love to talk about it and they have a lot to say, and using that power of the students, engaging the staff in your university administrations, and building that awareness can lead to actual outcomes that are far-reaching and beyond. I’m not there anymore, but the work is ongoing.”